Like many U.S. cities, Toronto is expanding light rail to improve ridership accessibility– but does it make a difference? / by Clarrie Feinstein

Toronto has a grid-like public transit system, similar to Manhattan’s. Except Toronto only has three subway lines. Buses and streetcars are heavily relied on for commuters to travel within the Greater Toronto Area. 

 Map of the Toronto Transit Subway System (Flickr.com) 

Map of the Toronto Transit Subway System (Flickr.com) 

Building new subway lines would be extremely costly. The Toronto Transit System would have to spend billions of dollars expanding the transit system, which it cannot afford. Most subway lines are in the cost-range of $200 million to $500 million per mile of underground subway construction. 

The solution to improve commuter accessibility across the city is light rail. While light rail functions similarly to streetcars, they are faster and can travel beyond the downtown parameters. Cheaper light rail lines cost about $40 million per mile and more expensive lines cost $100 million. 

 

 Toronto's light rail expansion map (colored lines indicate light rail)  courtesy of TransitToronto.ca  

Toronto's light rail expansion map (colored lines indicate light rail) courtesy of TransitToronto.ca 

Streetcars are often slow and cover short distances. Toronto’s rapid population growth and increased urban sprawl demands better and faster urban transportation, which light rail can provide. 

Historically, streetcars were an integral part of city transportation. Certain cities, such as, Boston. New Orleans, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Seattle preserved their busiest lines while Toronto extended their rail transit system after WWII (resulting in the continued reliance on streetcar transportation today). 

But cars, subways and buses eventually took over as other, more efficient, forms of transportation. Most cities demolished their streetcar systems, finding them to be inefficient. 

 Toronto streetcar (Flickr.com)

Toronto streetcar (Flickr.com)

Now streetcars have returned as a viable form of city transportation in terms of tackling energy efficient vehicle solutions. Today, cities are facing grave problems that need serious remedies. Light rail can address energy conservation, air and ground pollution, traffic congestion and high operational costs. 

Toronto is creating eight new light rail lines. According to CityLab, "billions of local, state and federal dollars have been invested in light rail lines in 16 regions across the U.S. with 144 miles of additional lines under construction, totaling a cost of $25 billion. Whereas, no region has invested in new heavy rail subway systems since 1993."

While light rail has not increased public transit ridership in most American cities, it offers a compelling alternative for heavy rail expansion. Toronto’s population is expected to increase by 35 percent in 2040 - the downtown will house over 3 million people. Heavy rail expansion would take decades to build and the demand for further reaching public transportation needs immediate action. 

 Light rail (Flickr.com)

Light rail (Flickr.com)